Church Membership: Continuing the Conversation

Yesterday on the Lord’s Day, I delivered a sermon entitled “A Survey of Biblical Church Membership.” (You can listen to it here, although about a quarter of it was lost due to technical difficulties). I tried to present a case for church membership out of 1 Corinthians 12, showing how the local church is defined by a composition of diverse members who are called to a specific location in the body. I then gave several identifying marks of church membership as conveyed in the New Testament. These were commitment, submission, and a visible representation of Christ to the surrounding community.

And yet, there are so many more of these identifying attributes that help us see God’s vision for the Christian in belonging to a local church. Among these evidences are corporate prayer, corporate worship, and even church discipline. But there is one I have in mind that I believe to be so crucial in our Christian lives: the grace of discipleship.

Discipleship is a lifelong process for the Christian.  It is the way that a believer becomes more like Christ.  It is the way we pursue our growth in sanctification. And discipleship may just be the most overlooked, yet most important, identifying mark of biblical church membership.

In my sermon yesterday, I used the term “Christian nomads.”  This is a term having a similar meaning to “church hopper” that I used in my last post.  A Christian nomad is self-declared believer who is more of a separatist – one who is content to be separated from a local fellowship of believers.  They may indeed visit various churches, but are more content to live out their life alone. But is this God’s will for a true believer? More specifically, can a believer in Jesus Christ be shaped into Christlikeness and holiness if he or she rejects a commitment to a local church? For this answer, we turn to the Word of God.

We begin by looking at Peter’s second epistle to his fellow believers abroad.  At the conclusion of the letter, Peter says:

14 Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things [the new heaven and the new earth], be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; 15 and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:14-16)

He continues:

17 You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; 18 but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

What is the apostle saying to these Christians?

  1. Firstly, Peter reminds them that because the Day of the Lord is imminent, and that the heavens, the earth, and the elements will be burned up, we ought to be a people that strive for holy and godly conduct (v 10-15).
  2. Secondly, “untaught and unstable people” will appear in the world and “twist” the truth of the Scripture.  Paul, John, and Jude also warned of these false teachers that would come (2 Corinthians 11:33ff; Galatians 1:6-9; Titus 1:10ff; 1 John 2:18ff; Jude; et al) – even into the church “to deceive, if possible… the elect” (Matthew 24:24).
  3. Thirdly, since they “know this beforehand,” these Christians are to “beware” that they don’t fall away from their own “steadfastness” (“stability,” ESV; v 17); and
  4. Fourthly, that they rather “grow in the grace and knowledge” of Christ (v 18).

Strive for holiness as we await Christ’s return, know that false teachers will try to deceive Christians by twisting the Scriptures (which point to Christ); therefore, be on guard so we do not get tricked by their deception, but rather, grow in both the grace and knowledge of Jesus.

If this Christ-denying deception is a reality in the world today (and John says it is, see 1 John 4:3), then how can we resist falling into deception? I mean, the reason why deception is so deceptive is because it sounds true. Further, how can we best experience Christian growth to maturity?  To answer this, I am reminded of the letter to the Hebrews. I mentioned these verses yesterday in church, but I would like to add an extra verse or two. Hebrews 10:19-20; 23-25:

19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus,20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh… 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.

Okay so, the writer of the Hebrews has just finished a beautiful dissertation on the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice in order to bring the people of God to Himself.  Jesus made the way for the people of God to enter into the presence of God through His substitutionary death and glorious resurrection.  Therefore, says Hebrews, “let us hold fast” our confession of Christ “without wavering,” because Christ is faithful to finish what He has begun in us (v 23).  And yet, immediately after this, the writer tells us something very similar to what Peter said in 2 Peter 3: the Day of Christ is drawing near.

Therefore, taking verse 23 and pulling it together with verse 24 and 25, what is the means by which we are to be on guard against the deception in the world that would work to destroy our faith in Christ? Further, how can we experience the grace of God in our lives and develop into Christlike Christians? Hebrews tells us: “consider one another” (v 24) in order to spur on in each other a greater love for Jesus, His bride, and this world; and encourage each other to pursue the works which accompany this love. Where is this growth – this discipleship best experienced? Verse 25 tells us: in the fellowship of the assembly of Christ-followers.

Where does this assembling actually occur? In the local church.  It is there in the local church that God has chosen for us to become like His Son.  This happens in a number of ways, though I am thinking mainly of three reasons why it happens most successfully as we are in relationship with a group of believers.

Reason #1: Differing personalities stimulate our sanctification.

The local church is filled with people of diverse and sometimes drastically different personalities, though we are all unified under the banner of Christ’s love.

As more Christians commit to a local body with such a diversity of people, our assemblies will be colored by various personality types.  As a result, conflict can and will occur in the local church. (Avoiding conflict is a reason is why many “Christian nomads” keep to themselves.)  And yet, it is with conflict that the Christian grows in maturity. Someone once said, “Where there is no pressure, there is no diamonds.” God has composed His body with many diverse parts in order for each part to help strengthen the other.  Because we are unified by Christ’s love in the local church, this strengthening often happens through encouragement and care for each other.  However, there are times when God allows conflict to occur in order to strengthen His body. To use a practical analogy, our physicals bodies will become weak if we do not subject them to the discipline of exercise.  Exercise, though painful, strengthens our muscles and develops endurance. If we ignore exercising so we can stay comfortable, we will grow increasingly unhealthy.

Likewise, we Christians cannot flee the first sign of interpersonal conflict just so we can be happy.  In fact, we will become unhealthy if we always keep to ourselves and deny ourselves the blessing of corporate relationship where conflict can arise.  This conflict, when embraced and resolved with humility will produce Christlikeness.  Jesus Himself modeled for us this example of humility when He totally submitted to those who hated Him.  As we face our own hardships (with people or life in general), we can find comfort in knowing that the joy of the end result will far outweigh the struggle. Diamonds are produced when pressure is present:

“…Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God…consider Him…lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls..” (Hebrews 12:2-3)

Therefore, neglect not the assembling our yourselves together, for it is there that conflict produces Christlikeness.

Reason #2: The shared benefit of the same pulpit ministry.

Because Christians in the local church sit together under the same pulpit ministry, they have a common bond under the Word of God.

As members of the local church hear the sermon each week and engage in small group Bible study, each member can encourage the other primarily through the Scriptures.  Again, the makeup of a local church is composed of diverse personalities, those from differing social statuses, and those with differing maturity levels.  These believers then, because they are all impacted by the same Word of God, can use the Scriptures to encourage and sharpen one another. One more mature believer may be able to take his or her insight from the verses preached during the Sunday sermon and minister to a less mature believer. The result is deeper relationship between the members, greater mutual excitement over the Word, and a more steadfast walk of faith as they endure life both independently and together during the week.

Reason #3: An environment of mutual care.

The local church provides an environment where each member can be involved in the mutual care of the other.

I gave this Scripture yesterday, 1 Corinthians 12:26:

And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

Perhaps this is the greatest benefit to our Christian growth in maturity: having relationship with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who will help us to endure through both the good and bad times in life. The Christian nomad and the church hopper do not experience this mutual care as fully as the church member.  This is because God has designed His Church to be the place (physically and spiritually) where each member can find comfort and strength when they need it most.  Sure, the nomad or hopper may find this comfort from a fellow believer independent of the church.  More than likely, however, the nomad and hopper will fulfill his or her need for comfort from someone in the world. For the church member, though, it is in the gathering of at least 2 or 3 where Christ is present most fully (Matthew 18:20).  Here, the comfort of love and encouragement abounds because each member displays a dependence on the other that is centered on the living Christ.

Consider when Peter and John were arrested for preaching Jesus (Acts 4).  When they were released from the court of the Jewish leaders, they immediately returned “to their friends” (v 23, ESV), or their local fellowship of believers, and “reported” their experience.  Then what happened? The church raised their voices to God and prayed that He would strengthen, embolden, and encourage His “servants” to continue to preach Christ (v 24ff). At the conclusion of their prayer, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (v 31). The nomad and the hopper simply cannot find this care, encouragement, and spiritual support independent of the local church.

So, let us embrace the local body of Christ.  I said this yesterday and I’ll say it again: Christ died so that His body would be unified under Himself, who is the Head.  It is here in this assembly of unity that we become like Jesus, ever growing into His image.

Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. The Day is fast approaching, and we need the local church to help us get there, to the glory and praise of God.

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Church Membership: Beginning a Conversation

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This week and next, I am preparing to preach a series of sermons on the topic of church membership. This is a topic that I think many Christians in the United States have a clouded understanding of. For many, church membership means filling out an application, committing to attend every service, and vowing to put their tithes in the offering plate.  But, is this really what it means to be a church member? I mean, does the Bible even talk about church membership? If it does not, then joining a church is optional.  It is something the church has continued because it loves tradition. If it does, however, then it most certainly cannot be ignored, but must rather be explored, studied, and even enjoyed as a blessing from God.

It is my contention that church membership is completely biblical. Let’s begin this conversation by trying to define church membership.  For this definition, I will turn to Jonathan Leeman’s book, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, a short volume that is a part of series of books from 9Marks on building healthy churches. Keep in mind that Leeman draws his definition from the ten “indisputable themes” of church membership that ran throughout the first days of the early church (for more, read chapter 2 in his book). But for now, here is his definition:

“Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.” (p 64)

Though it is a long definition, it is an excellent one.  Leeman points out that there are three elements present in this definition.

Affirmation – “A Church body formally affirms an individual’s profession of faith and baptism as credible” (p 65).

In other words, in order to enter into a “formal relationship” with the body of Christ, a person should actually be a member of the body of Christ.  This is affirmed through the church’s recognition of an individual’s affirmation of faith and the visible act of Christian baptism.

Oversight – “It promises to give oversight to that individual’s discipleship” (p 65).

The local body has the primary responsibility to ensure that every member is given the proper tools to grow in their relationship with Christ.

Submission – “The individual formerly submits his or her discipleship to the service and authority of this body and its leaders” (p 65).

Specifically, a church member acknowledges the local church as the body responsible for the oversight of his or her soul. This means that, in joining up with a local church, each individual member is placing their spiritual care into the hands of that church’s leaders and members. Likewise, he or she will do the same for the other members – work to care for them spiritually and physically.

So, this is a brief description of what it means to be the part of a local church. Doesn’t quite seem so simple as signing a card and agreeing to a statement of faith, does it? There is more – far more to entering into a formal relationship with a local church than merely agreeing to pay your tithes to it.  In fact, to join with a local body in some ways is similar to the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. On the one hand, unlike the marriage covenant, it can be a breakable union. There are appropriate times and reasons to break the formal relationship of church membership.  On the other hand, however, to join with a local church does not mean that its members can simply stop investing their time and resources with the church when they don’t like something (or someone).

Unfortunately, this is the epidemic of our day.  You’ve heard of the term “church hopper,” right? A church hopper is a person who moves from church to church, sometimes indefinitely, due to a number of possible reasons.  For example, Church A has too early of a worship service, so they visit Church B.  Church B, however, has boring music, so they go to Church C.  In Church C, though, the preacher is too “long-winded,” so, they visit Church D.  Now, I will be the first to say that it is important to belong to a church that is teaching solid doctrine. After all, the local church is responsible to “give oversight” to a member’s discipleship.  But, there is a very visible theme running through the epidemic of church hopping. Did you catch it? Self-centeredness. The church hopper says, “I am not satisfied with what I see, so I will search until I am satisfied.”

However, there’s a problem with this reasoning. No church can satisfy every desire we have. Church A may provide a good worship service, but 10 AM is just too early on a weekend. Church C doesn’t start till 11, but the preacher cuts into lunchtime.  The deeper issue in each of these excuses, though, is the church hopper is focused on his or herself and not the body of Christ. Church membership for the hopper is mainly about “what others can do for me,” and not about the commitment to serve others. If the church seems like it will meet the hopper’s needs, he or she may decide to join.  They may stay for a time and even get involved.  But over time, something will annoy them.  If the annoyance is heightened enough, they will leave.

For the epidemic of church hopping, the Bible offers us a cure.  Hebrews  10:24-25 (ESV) says:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Here, perhaps more bluntly than any other passage, the inspired Word of God shows us that the cure for church hopping is to stop looking at ourselves.  In fact, the mandate for biblical church membership teaches us to be ever mindful that Christ’s return is near, and to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13)!  Sin is deceptive, and the local body of Christ wields a power that is able to unmask and overcome sin’s trickery in one another and encourage each other toward holiness.  In both of these texts, church membership is centered on one member’s care for the other. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Church membership is about the progress of the whole body.

This interpersonal encouragement will involve a long-term commitment to one another.  It will involve personal sacrifice and Christlike humility. But as we enter into this commitment, we will find that the local body of Christ is displaying Christ to the world.  Its members will discover the soul-care and maturity that is needed to endure until Christ returns. And, dare I say, people will want what we have!

So, as we explore this topic together, let us pray that God opens our eyes to the beauty of the Body of Christ and our need for one another. I think we’ll see that the Bible says a whole lot more about church membership than we’ve ever thought before!

With you as we study together,

Pastor Josh